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Second Circuit: District Court Required to Explain Rationale for Reducing Sentence to ‘Time Served’ Under First Step Act but Refused to Reduce Supervised Release Portion of Sentence Despite Being Longer Than New Mandatory Minimum

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a defendant’s 10-term of supervised release because the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York failed to explain its rationale for not reducing the term when it reduced the incarceration portion of the sentence to “time served” under the First Step Act.

In 2007, Shawn Young was charged with multiple crack cocaine offenses and eventually pleaded guilty to two counts, each falling under a different statutory provision for sentencing. Grouping the two counts, the district court imposed a below-Guidelines sentence of 16 years, with a 10-year term of supervised release on Count One and five on Count Two. When the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (“FSA”) was enacted and lowered Young’s sentencing range under the Guidelines, he was ineligible for relief because the FSA doesn’t apply retroactively to prisoners sentenced before the FSA went into effect. See Dorsey v. United States, 567 U.S. 260 (2012). However, in 2018 Congress enacted the First Step Act and made the FSA retroactive to prisoners such as Young. First Step Act § 404(b).

When Young filed his First Step Act motion, the district court granted relief on the more serious offense—Count One—under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), reducing his sentence on that count to “time served.” The court based its decision in part on Young’s post-sentencing conduct in prison, finding he had “made significant strides to change his life around for the better while incarcerated … made very productive use of his time in prison … worked steadily while in custody … shown genuine remorse,” and hadn’t committed a disciplinary infraction in six years.

However, the court refused to reduce his 10-year term of supervised release connected to Count One. Defense counsel reminded the court that it has the authority to reduce the term of supervised release as well. But the court didn’t provide any explanation for its decision other than remarking, “Yes, I think I wouldn’t change—if I did anything, I would not change supervised release.”

Because the court refused to extend First Step Act relief to Count Two, Young still had to serve the 16-year sentence on that. He was released while he was preparing his appeal.

On appeal, the Government argued that the appeal was moot since Young was released. The Court disagreed. “Young has a concrete interest in the outcome of his appeal on Count Two because he remains subject to a term of supervised release on that count,” the Court countered. See Chafin v. Chafin, 568 U.S. 165 (2013) (“[a]s long as the parties have a concrete interest, however small, in the outcome of the litigation, the case is not moot”). Citing several cases where courts have reduced supervised release because of prisoners over-serving their terms after their sentences were corrected, the Court said Young showed more than a “remote and speculative possibility” he could receive a reduced term of supervised release were he to prevail on his Count Two claim. See United States v. Holloway, 956 F.3d 660 (2d Cir. 2020).

But he lost on that claim. The Court agreed with the district court that the First Step Act did not apply offenses under § 841(b)(1)(C) because a conviction under thereunder is not a “covered offense” under the First Step Act. The Court noted that several other circuits have reached the same conclusion, viz., the Third, Sixth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits. (See full opinion for case citations.)

This meant that Young had served his 16-year sentence and did not serve anything beyond what was properly handed to him, despite Count One being reduced. But the supervised release question on Count One remained, and the Court decided that issue in his favor.

The Court determined that the district court should have explained its refusal to reduce Young’s supervised release on Count One. It stated that § 841(b)(1)(A) is a covered offense, and Young’s 10-year term exceeds the new mandatory minimum of four years. As such, he is eligible for a sentence reduction with respect to his supervised release term, so the district court had the discretion to reduce his term or leave it in tact. But the Court found fault in the district court’s failure to provide any explanation for its decision.

“We cannot uphold a discretionary decision unless we have confidence that the district court exercised its discretion and did so on the basis of reasons that survive our limited review,” the Court explained. “Here, the district court provided no explanation as to why it decided to reduce Young’s term of supervised release on Count One [and neither] are its reasons for doing so apparent from the record.”

The district court simply declared that it would not reduce the term of supervised release, but the Court explained that isn’t sufficient, especially since the district court commended Young for his “significant strides” to change his life in prison. “In light of these remarks, it is unclear why the district court would reduce Young’s term of incarceration on Count One to time served while leaving his ten-year term of supervised release unchanged.” The Court stated that the explanation “need not be lengthy,” but without “some indication of the rationale for the ruling, we are precluded from conducting a meaningful appellate review.” United States v. Christie, 736 F.3d 191 (2d Cir. 2013).

Accordingly, the Court vacated Young’s term of supervised release on Count One and remanded for the district court to reassess his term of supervised release. See: United States v. Young, 998 F.3d 43 (2d Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal cases

United States v. Young

United States v. Holloway

Chafin v. Chafin

Dorsey v. U.S.

United States Supreme Court
567 U.S. ___; 132 S.Ct. 2321; 182 L.Ed.2d ___; 2012 WL 2344463

DORSEY
v.
UNITED STATES

Nos. 11–5683 and 11–5721

Argued April 17, 2012

Decided June 21, 2012FN1


SyllabusFN*

FN* The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.

Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986 Drug Act), the 5- and 10-year mandatory minimum prison terms for federal drug crimes reflected a 100-to-1 disparity between the amounts of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger the minimums. Thus, the 5-year minimum was triggered by a conviction for possessing with intent to distribute 5 grams of crack cocaine but 500 grams of powder, and the 10-year minimum was triggered by a conviction for possessing with intent to distribute 50 grams of crack but 5,000 grams of powder. The United States Sentencing Commission—which is charged under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 with writing the Federal Sentencing Guidelines—incorporated the 1986 Drug Act’s 100-to-1 disparity into the Guidelines because it believed that doing so was the best way to keep similar drug-trafficking sentences proportional, thereby satisfying the Sentencing Reform Act’s basic proportionality objective. The Fair Sentencing Act, which took effect on August 3, 2010, reduced the disparity to 18-to-1, lowering the mandatory minimums applicable to many crack offenders, by increasing the amount of crack needed to trigger the 5-year minimum from 5 to 28 grams and the amount for the 10-year minimum from 50 to 280 grams, while leaving the powder cocaine amounts intact. It also directed the Sentencing Commission to make conforming amendments to the Guidelines “as soon as practicable” (but no later than 90 days after the Fair Sentencing Act’s effective date). The new amendments became effective on November 1, 2010.

In No. 115721, petitioner Hill unlawfully sold 53 grams of crack in 2007, but was not sentenced until December 2010. Sentencing him to the 10-year minimum mandated by the 1986 Drug Act, the District Judge ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act’s 5-year minimum for selling that amount of crack did not apply to those whose offenses were committed before the Act’s effective date. In No. 115683, petitioner Dorsey unlawfully sold 5.5 grams of crack in 2008. In September 2010, the District Judge sentenced him to the 1986 Drug Act’s 10-year minimum, finding that it applied because Dorsey had a prior drug conviction and declining to apply the Fair Sentencing Act, under which there would be no mandated minimum term for an amount less than 28 grams, because Dorsey’s offense predated that Act’s effective date. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in both cases.

Held: The Fair Sentencing Act’s new, lower mandatory minimums apply to the post-Act sentencing of pre-Act offenders. Pp. 1020.

(a) Language in different statutes argues in opposite directions. The general federal saving statute (1871 Act) provides that a new criminal statute that “repeal[s]” an older criminal statute shall not change the penalties “incurred” under that older statute “unless the repealing Act shall so expressly provide.” 1 U. S. C. §109. The word “repeal” applies when a new statute simply diminishes the penalties that the older statute set forth, see Warden v. Marrero, 417 U. S. 653, 659664, and penalties are “incurred” under the older statute when an offender becomes subject to them, i.e., commits the underlying conduct that makes the offender liable, see United States v. Reisinger, 128 U. S. 398, 401. In contrast, the Sentencing Reform Act says that, regardless of when the offender’s conduct occurs, the applicable sentencing guidelines are the ones “in effect on the date the defendant is sentenced.” 18 U. S. C. §3553(a)(4)(A)(ii).

Six considerations, taken together, show that Congress intended the Fair Sentencing Act’s more lenient penalties to apply to offenders who committed crimes before August 3, 2010, but were sentenced after that date. First, the 1871 saving statute permits Congress to apply a new Act’s more lenient penalties to pre-Act offenders without expressly saying so in the new Act. The 1871 Act creates what is in effect a less demanding interpretive requirement because the statute “cannot justify a disregard of the will of Congress as manifested, either expressly or by necessary implication, in a subsequent enactment.” Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 208 U. S. 452, 465. Hence, this Court has treated the 1871 Act as setting forth an important background principle of interpretation that requires courts, before interpreting a new criminal statute to apply its new penalties to a set of pre-Act offenders, to assure themselves by the “plain import” or “fair implication” of the new statute that ordinary interpretive considerations point clearly in that direction. Second, the Sentencing Reform Act sets forth a special and different background principle in §3553(a)(4)(A)(ii), which applies unless ex post facto concerns are present. Thus, new, lower Guidelines amendments apply to offenders who committed an offense before the adoption of the amendments but are sentenced thereafter. Third, language in the Fair Sentencing Act implies that Congress intended to follow the Sentencing Reform Act’s special background principle here. Section 8 of the Fair Sentencing Act requires the Commission to promulgate conforming amendments to the Guidelines that “achieve consistency with other guideline provisions and applicable law.” Read most naturally, “applicable law” refers to the law as changed by the Fair Sentencing Act, including the provision reducing the crack mandatory minimums. And consistency with “other guideline provisions” and with prior Commission practice would require application of the new Guidelines amendments to offenders who committed their offense before the new amendments’ effective date but were sentenced thereafter. Fourth, applying the 1986 Drug Act’s old mandatory minimums to the post-August 3 sentencing of pre-August 3 offenders would create sentencing disparities of a kind that Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act and the Fair Sentencing Act to prevent. Fifth, not to apply the Fair Sentencing Act would do more than preserve a disproportionate status quo; it would make matters worse by creating new anomaliesnew sets of disproportionate sentencesnot previously present. That is because sentencing courts must apply the new Guidelines (consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act’s new minimums) to pre-Act offenders, and the 1986 Drug Act’s old minimums would trump those new Guidelines for some pre-Act offenders but not for all of them. Application of the 1986 Drug Act minimums to pre-Act offenders sentenced after the new Guidelines take effect would therefore produce a set of sentences at odds with Congress’ basic efforts to create more uniform, more proportionate sentences. Sixth, this Court has found no strong countervailing considerations that would make a critical difference. Pp. 1019.

(b) The new Act’s lower minimums also apply to those who committed an offense prior to August 3 and were sentenced between that date and November 1, 2010, the effective date of the new Guidelines. The Act simply instructs the Commission to promulgate new Guidelines “as soon as practicable” (but no later than 90 days after the Act took effect), and thus as far as Congress was concerned, the Commission might have promulgated those Guidelines to be effective as early as August 3. In any event, courts, treating the Guidelines as advi-sory, possess authority to sentence in accordance with the new minimums. Finally, applying the new minimums to all who are sentenced after August 3 makes it possible to foresee a reasonably smooth transition, and this Court has no reason to believe Congress would have wanted to impose an unforeseeable, potentially complex application date. Pp. 1920.

No. 115683, 635 F. 3d 336, and No. 115721, 417 Fed. Appx. 560, vacated and remanded.

FN1. Together with No. 11–5721, Hill v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court.


Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas and Alito, JJ., joined.


ON WRITS OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT


Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court.


Federal statutes impose mandatory minimum prison sentences upon those convicted of federal drug crimes. These statutes typically base the length of a minimum prison term upon the kind and amount of the drug involved. Until 2010, the relevant statute imposed upon an offender who dealt in powder cocaine the same sentence it imposed upon an offender who dealt in one one-hundredth that amount of crack cocaine. It imposed, for example, the same 5-year minimum term upon (1) an offender convicted of possessing with intent to distribute 500 grams of powder cocaine as upon (2) an offender convicted of possessing with intent to distribute 5 grams of crack.

In 2010, Congress enacted a new statute reducing the crack-to-powder cocaine disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. Fair Sentencing Act, 124 Stat. 2372. The new statute took effect on August 3, 2010. The question here is whether the Act’s more lenient penalty provisions apply to offenders who committed a crack cocaine crime before August 3, 2010, but were not sentenced until after August 3. We hold that the new, more lenient mandatory minimum provisions do apply to those pre-Act offenders.

I

The underlying question before us is one of congres-sional intent as revealed in the Fair Sentencing Act’s language, structure, and basic objectives. Did Congress intend the Act’s more lenient penalties to apply to pre-Act offenders sentenced after the Act took effect?

We recognize that, because of important background principles of interpretation, we must assume that Congress did not intend those penalties to apply unless it clearly indicated to the contrary. See infra, at 10–13. But we find that clear indication here. We rest our conclu- sion primarily upon the fact that a contrary determination would seriously undermine basic Federal Sentencing Guidelines objectives such as uniformity and proportionality in sentencing. Indeed, seen from that perspective, a contrary determination would (in respect to relevant groups of drug offenders) produce sentences less uniform and more disproportionate than if Congress had not enacted the Fair Sentencing Act at all. See infra, at 14–18.

Because our conclusion rests upon an analysis of the Guidelines-based sentencing system Congress has established, we describe that system at the outset and include an explanation of how the Guidelines interact with federal statutes setting forth specific terms of imprisonment.

A

The Guidelines originate in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, 98 Stat. 1987. That statute created a federal Sentencing Commission instructed to write guidelines that judges would use to determine sentences imposed upon offenders convicted of committing federal crimes. 28 U. S. C. §§991, 994. Congress thereby sought to increase transparency, uniformity, and proportionality in sentencing. United States Sentencing Commission (USSC or Commission), Guidelines Manual §1A1.3, p. 2 (Nov. 2011) (USSG); see 28 U. S. C. §§991(b)(1), 994(f).

The Sentencing Reform Act directed the Commission to create in the Guidelines categories of offense behavior ( e.g., “ ‘bank robbery/committed with a gun/$2500 taken’ ”) and offender characteristics ( e.g., “one prior conviction”). USSG §1A1.2, at 1; see 28 U. S. C. §§994(a)–(e). A sentencing judge determines a Guidelines range by (1) finding the applicable offense level and offender category and then (2) consulting a table that lists proportionate sentenc- ing ranges ( e.g., 18 to 24 months of imprisonment) at the intersections of rows (marking offense levels) and columns (marking offender categories). USSG ch. 5, pt. A, Sen-tencing Table, §§5E1.2, 7B1.4; see also §1A1.4(h), at 11. The Guidelines, after telling the judge how to determine the applicable offense level and offender category, instruct the judge to apply the intersection’s range in an ordinary case, but they leave the judge free to depart from that range in an unusual case. See 18 U. S. C. §3553(b); USSG §§1A1.2, at 1–2, 1A1.4(b), at 6–7. This Court has held that the Guidelines are now advisory. United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220, 245, 264 (2005); see Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U. S. 85, 91 (2007).

The Guidelines determine most drug-crime offense lev-els in a special way. They set forth a Drug Quantity Table (or Table) that lists amounts of various drugs and associates different amounts with different “Base Offense Levels” (to which a judge may add or subtract levels depending upon the “specific” characteristics of the offender’s behavior). See USSG §2D1.1. The Table, for example, associates 400 to 499 grams of powder cocaine with a base offense level of 24, a level that would mean for a first-time offender a prison term of 51 to 63 months. §2D1.1(c).

In 1986, Congress enacted a more specific, drug-related sentencing statute, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986 Drug Act), 100 Stat. 3207. That statute sets forth mandatory minimum penalties of 5 and 10 years applicable to a drug offender depending primarily upon the kind and amount of drugs involved in the offense. See 21 U. S. C. §§841(b)(1) (A)–(C) (2006 ed. And Supp. IV). The minimum applicable to an offender convicted of possessing with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of powder cocaine is 5 years, and for 5,000 grams or more of powder the minimum is 10 years. §§841(b)(1)(A)(ii), (B)(ii). The 1986 Drug Act, however, treated crack cocaine crimes as far more serious. It applied its 5-year minimum to an offender convicted of possessing with intent to distribute only 5 grams of crack (as compared to 500 grams of powder) and its 10-year minimum to one convicted of possessing with intent to distribute only 50 grams of crack (as compared to 5,000 grams of powder), thus producing a 100-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio. §§841(b)(1)(A)(iii), (B)(iii) (2006 ed.).

The 1986 Drug Act, like other federal sentencing statutes, interacts with the Guidelines in an important way. Like other sentencing statutes, it trumps the Guidelines. Thus, ordinarily no matter what the Guidelines provide, a judge cannot sentence an offender to a sentence beyond the maximum contained in the federal statute setting forth the crime of conviction. Similarly, ordinarily no matter what range the Guidelines set forth, a sentencing judge must sentence an offender to at least the minimum prison term set forth in a statutory mandatory minimum. See 28 U. S. C. §§994(a), (b)(1); USSG §5G1.1; Neal v. United States, 516 U. S. 284, 289–290, 295 (1996).

Not surprisingly, the Sentencing Commission incorporated the 1986 Drug Act’s mandatory minimums into the first version of the Guidelines themselves. Kimbrough, supra, at 96–97. It did so by setting a base offense level for a first-time drug offender that corresponded to the lowest Guidelines range above the applicable mandatory minimum. USSC, Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 53–54 (Oct. 2011) (2011 Report). Thus, the first Guidelines Drug Quantity Table associated 500 grams of powder cocaine with an offense level of 26, which for a first-time offender meant a sentencing range of 63 to 78 months (just above the 5-year minimum), and it associated 5,000 grams of powder cocaine with an offense level of 32, which for a first-time offender meant a sentencing range of 121 to 151 months (just above the 10-year minimum). USSG §2D1.1 (Oct. 1987). Further reflecting the 1986 Drug Act’s 100-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio, the Table associated an offense level of 26 with 5 grams of crack and an offense level of 32 with 50 grams of crack. Ibid.

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